No Rape Victim, Male or Female, Deserves to Be Blamed

Women and men alike can experience fierce ostracization after reporting sexual assault.
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Last year, a small American town began to cannibalize its own after a group of high school student athletes sexually assaulted an incapacitated classmate. In the aftermath, rather than rallying around the young victim, townspeople rushed to downplay the attack and defend the perpetrators instead.

If this sounds familiar, you might think I'm talking about Steubenville, Ohio--but I'm actually talking about Norwood, Colorado.

In February 2012, three high school wrestlers from the tiny town of Norwood ambushed a 13-year-old boy on a school bus, restrained him with duct tape, and anally raped him with a pencil. The victim's father, who was also the high school principal, notified the superintendent and school board immediately, but aside from a one-day suspension, there were no repercussions for the perpetrators (two of whom were sons of the head wrestling coach, who also happened to be president of the school board). Despite Colorado's mandatory reporting laws, the police were not notified until the principal reported the incident himself after a month of inaction on the part of town and school officials.

In the wake of the boys' arrests on charges ranging from kidnapping to sexual assault, the seventh-grade victim was blamed and bullied by his peers at school and on social media. Rather than cracking down on this harassment, some parents encouraged it, including the mother of an accused boy who made and distributed t-shirts that proclaimed alliance with the teenaged attackers.

Many Norwood citizens ostracized the victim and called for his father's resignation, incensed that the principal had reported what, to them, was a benign schoolboy prank. The assailants, all charged as juveniles, pled guilty to misdemeanors and received varying sentences of probation, community service, and cash restitution. The victim and his family were arguably punished more severely. After months of harassment, they were ultimately driven out of Norwood altogether and relocated to another community.

While Steubenville has been in the media spotlight since last December, the Norwood assault only recently received minimal national coverage, despite striking parallels between the two cases. There is much they share in common, such as the violence and permissiveness of sports culture, but their most disturbing common denominator is the secondary victimization of the raped teens in the form of rampant, town-wide victim-blaming.

Steubenville, in fact, has becoming a metonym for victim-blaming, serving for many feminist writers as a case-in-point argument for the existence of rape culture. Jill Filipovic, writing for The Guardian, uses Steubenville to lay out the orthodox feminist narrative that victim-blaming is rooted in misogyny. The Steubenville victim was shamed, scrutinized, demonized, and blamed because, Filipovic asserts, we live in a "woman-hating world."

While I'm not going to dispute the pervasiveness of misogyny in most cultures, this standard narrative doesn't fully account for what happened in Norwood, where there was a similar epidemic of victim-blaming, but no female victim. In fact, research on sexual violence indicates that, overall, male victims of rape elicit comparable or even more blame for their attacks than female victims. A number of recent studies reveal a more complex story about rape culture than is often told, a story that roots victim-blaming attitudes not in misogyny (or misandry) per se, but in perceived violations of traditional gender roles.

Thanks to the spotlight of feminist activism, a vast amount of literature on female rape has accumulated over the past four decades, whereas the study of male rape has been comparatively neglected. (Some social scientists estimate that research and resources for male victims lags behind by a good 20 years.) These analyses, as well as activist endeavors like SlutWalks, have focused on highlighting and debunking myths about female rape that contribute to victim-blaming. Such myths were highly visible in reactions to the Steubenville case, where the victim's use of alcohol and sexual history were used to fault her for the rape.

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Abigail Rine teaches literature and gender studies at George Fox University. She is the author of the forthcoming book Irigaray, Incarnation and Contemporary Women’s Fiction. She writes regularly at Mama Unabridged.

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